May you live in the time of Alex Agnew
These are interesting times for Alex Agnew, the Antwerp comedian with English roots. Last year he sold out his hometown’s Sportpaleis five times. Now he’s back with a new show. It’s darker than before, but at least he’s found an outlet for his everlasting irritations.
Flanders’ most popular comedian blows off some steam in new show
May you live in interesting times. It’s a legendary curse, but a useful one for Alex Agnew, who considers the world in crisis a big opportunity. “For a comedian, the situation in the world cannot be bad enough,” he says. “People want more and more, and, at the same time, there’s an economic crisis, which is responsible for people getting less and less.”
But the title of Agnew’s new show, Interesting Times, also refers to the man himself, who is questioning the next step after last year’s huge success. “Is that your final goal? And what comes after? If I was only looking for fame, then I could stop. After the Sportpaleis shows, I was really wondering if I should continue. Then my wife said: ‘If you’re not doing this, you’re not only unhappy, you’re also unmanageable.’ And she was right. I would be a very annoying person if I didn’t have this outlet.”
I’m talking to Agnew (pictured) just before he enters a small stage in Rotselaar. To be honest, it’s not even a stage; he’s standing in front of an audience of some 150 fans. It’s one of a few public rehearsals in community centres and parish halls across Flanders before the big premiere in Antwerp’s Arenberg. “It does not bother me where I’m performing, as long as I can try jokes and shape new material into a hilarious show,” he says.
It’s striking to see how he fills the room, even when he’s not on stage. “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree,” he notes. “People also described my father as larger than life.”
Like father, like son
John Terrence Agnew was indeed a self-made man: He was a professional footballer for Sheffield Wednesday, combining a physical presence with intelligence and wit. “He was the first one in his family to get a university degree,” says Agnew of his British father. Agnew’s grandfather and “everybody in his hometown” worked for the local chemical company. “But my father was a draughtsman and kept on studying after hours. He finally became an engineer, even finishing a PhD.”
In the 1960s, John Terrence met Agnew’s mum in Brussels, and the pair eventually moved to Antwerp. “He was a real Anglophile, so I grew up with the BBC. The controversial Irish comedian Dave Allen was probably one of my first influences. But I also laughed with The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Monty Python… later on, Eddie Murphy’s shows Delirious and Wow were big discoveries. I watched them over and over.”
Nonetheless, it took some time to start out as a comedian. At first Agnew was afraid he wouldn’t be good enough, but after he seeing the comedy show of Dufraing & De Wit, the first winners of Humo’s Comedy Cup, he knew: “I can do this, too”. There’s no trick to it, he insists.
“Yes, you have to work hard and constantly improve your shows, but people are funny or they aren’t. It’s as simple as that.”
He soon became one of the trailblazers of a young, and still underground, comedy scene headed by Raf Coppens, Bert Kruismans and fellow Flemish-British funnymen Nigel Williams and Thomas Smith. “There’s a connection with these last two,” admits Agnew. “It’s a coincidence there’s so many comedians with this background, but it’s not a coincidence we became friends. Nigel, Thomas and me, we approach comedy differently than the Flemish or the Dutch do.”
Meaning that Agnew is not afraid to combine off-colour humour with witty social criticism, which is not so common in a region where cabaret as an art form is much more structured, and a smart comedian with a rock’n’roll attitude is often seen as a contradiction.
Back in 2003, Agnew won the Leids Cabaret Festival, an international success that created a buzz in Flanders. He began to land television appearances, and his stand-up shows attracted more and more people. Last year he celebrated 10 years on stage with the “best of ” production Larger Than Life, performed for more than 12,000 people.
These kind of numbers had never been seen before in the Benelux. But in England’s comedy scene, it’s not so unusual. A popular comedian like Lee Evans even sells out Wembley. So could this be the next step for an ambitious and not-so-modest artist at the end of his 30s?
“It’s not only a dream, it’s a plan,” he says. “But not yet. Since my father passed away 10 years ago, my English has degenerated, so I probably will have to live in England for a while before going on stage there. If it works out, great. If not, then I can always build a show around my English adventures.”
But first Agnew will tour Flanders with Interesting Times, a dark show in which he blows off steam. He’s clearly fed up with what he sees as a growing ego-centrism. “It’s not only irritating, it makes me angry. We all want to live in a city, but we cannot stand our neighbours any longer. Everything has become an ego trip. We just want to show off . An opening dance at a wedding has to be a performance for which you take a special dance course. We can’t just be amateur cooks, we have to be chefs. And then there’s all these opinions everywhere, certainly on the internet. Freedom of speech is nice, but maybe it’s better to ban the nonsense?”
These observations come out sharp and at high speed, with clever puns and superb timing. But in fact, the audience isn’t only laughing at the man up front. “The best comedy is like a mirror,” Agnew says. “It makes people laugh at themselves.”
14-18 FEBRUARY, 20.15
Alex Agnew / interesting Times